An email conversation with Dee Caffari: 'I am tough and I am determined when spirits are low'

Earning an MBE after solo global trip; Challenges of life alone on the ocean; Swapping logbooks for Heath Ledger By Matt Gatward


On Saturday it was announced that you have been awarded an MBE for your services to sailing. You must be chuffed? I am delighted and stunned and am looking forward to visiting the palace later this year to collect my award from the Queen. We have a great sailing heritage here in the UK and I am very proud to have been able to play my part.

Last year you became the first woman to sail solo non-stop around the globe, against the prevailing winds; now you want to do it the other way, in the Vendée Globe next year. Does this suggest a streak of madness? Probably more than just a streak! On the up side, sailing the "right" way should only take about half the time of the last voyage, which took six months. But being competitive on the racing circuit is a much more pressurised environment.

How long will the journey take? Past winners have completed it in around 90 days, so I'm hoping to compete with the front-runners. However, the last yacht home in 2005 took 126 days so we'll have to see how things develop. You never can tell with an event such as the Vendée Globe.

What was the inspiration to take on a venture like this? We have some fantastic offshore sailors in this country and they have been an inspiration. Adventure and challenge is what inspires me and the opportunity to set another world record was a challenge I could not pass up.

What other aspirations do you have in sailing? Firstly, I've got to deal with the Vendée Globe! After that, there are many races I would like to take part in. I am interested in the Volvo Race and the VX40 event circuit that begins this year.

What aspirations do you have on dry land? I have unfinished marathon business after my disappointing debut in London this year. I love adventure racing, which is great for my fitness and helps with my sailing career. A slightly more glamorous ambition is to take part in a series of Strictly Come Dancing so I can swap my foul-weather gear for a pretty frock!

Were there times during the last round-the-world voyage when the going got tough? I encountered some terrible weather in the Southern Ocean but I am tough and determined to carry on even when my spirits are low. Throughout the voyage I had assistance from the sports psychologists at Leeds Metropolitan University to keep me grounded. Sleep deprivation is a big issue on these solo races and that affects your mental state tremendously.

These boats are very physical things. Is there a constant threat of injury? Offshore sailing is a very physically demanding sport and there are times when you have to force yourself to do what needs to be done. There is an element of risk. The weather can make conditions dangerousand you must look after your own safety as a priority.

When the boat is behaving and the weather is not rough, can you describe a typical day? There is still loads to do. I will have to check positions of competitors and the weather to ensure I am making the best course possible at the best boat speed. I will also regularly check equipment to prevent problems before they arise. I also need to maintain my level of health, and food and fluid are important. After writing a diary, I can then finally enjoy the beautiful open ocean. Being at one with nature is a rare treat.

How does sailing through time zones affect sleep patterns? It doesn't really affect you when you are on a long solo voyage as you live a 24-hour day with cat naps now and then. There is no day and night split as most people experience it, only breaks for sleep when the conditions allow.

How do you manage cooking and making fresh water? I have a water maker that produces fresh water from salt water by reverse osmosis, which is great when it works but an issue if it stops, as most meals are dehydrated. I have a single-burner stove that allows me to heat pouches or add boiling water to a bag. All the meals taste similar after a while but there is some great freeze-dried food on the market.

Are you allowed treats? Treats are essential and all the more so when you are experiencing tough conditions. On my last voyage I had my food parcels separated into 10-day periods and in each box there were "treats". I also had things like hand cream, books and DVDs to lift my spirits. On the subject of other spirits, the sea and alcohol are not a good mix. The only alcoholic drink aboard was a couple of small champagne bottles for when I passed the great capes and Neptune at the Equator.

What do you to relax on board? Music, reading and DVDs last time around. This time, we have to keep the weight as low as possible. I will have an iPod with an eclectic mix of music and some films.

In the Vendée Globe you will be up against some of the best singlehanders in the world. Are you entering because you want to win or is finishing the primary goal? Obviously, I will be aiming for the highest position possible.

How did the London Marathon go and why did you enter it? Mmm, next question! I was disappointed as I had trained so hard and was on target for a time of 4hr 30min. At around the eight-mile mark I started to experience acute chest pains and sickness so I began walking until the pain was too intense, and then I would call at a first-aid station and receive some stretches from the physios, some painkillers from the doctors and some muscle rubs. This routine got me through the second half of the marathon. I was determined to finish and finally crossed the line after seven hours. As I said previously, the marathon is unfinished business.

You are obviously well-travelled. Which city would you visit for a perfect weekend break? Venice is a favourite, as my Italian links are still quite strong through my family. Italy is lovely, with great food and friendly people. I prefer the spring and autumn as the heat is less oppressive.

How did you get into sailing? My father would take me out on his motorboat, but my first sailing experience was at university. My career change from teacher to sailor came about seven years ago when I took my first sailing job in the Caribbean. When I returned to the UK I worked with Mike Golding before I was offered the position of skipper on the 2004-05 Global Challenge yacht race.

What sporting event would you most like to attend? The Olympics. I have always watched on the television in and I am thrilled that 2012 is approaching faster than we all realise.

If you could invite four people from any point in history to a dinner party, who would they be and why? [The sailor] Sir Peter Blake, because he is my hero. Peter Caffari: it would be lovely to have dinner with my father again. Amelia Earhart, was a pioneering woman who took flying to another level. And Heath Ledger - he is lovely to look at.

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